NFL Nation: Brandon Marshall

IRVING, Texas -- Jimmy Graham was unable to declare himself a wide receiver in an arbitration case, but the New Orleans Saints tight end did fairly well with his reported four-year, $40 million deal that includes $21 million guaranteed.

As the Dallas Cowboys and Dez Bryant look for ways to come to an agreement on a long-term deal so they can avoid any franchise-tag hassle next offseason, can Graham’s deal be something of a barometer for Bryant?

Graham
Bryant
Bryant
Graham argued he was a receiver because he lined up mostly off the line. It was an argument that was eventually denied by an arbiter, but there is some truth to what he was saying. Graham is not a tight end in the way Jason Witten is a tight end. But that is his position. Bryant will never be asked to put his hand on the ground to block somebody the way Graham is asked to do at least part of the time for the Saints.

But I digress. Let’s just look at the statistical comparisons of Bryant and Graham. Both players were selected in the 2010 draft. Bryant was a first-round pick, so he has an extra year on his rookie deal. Graham was a third-round pick.

In the past three seasons their numbers are fairly similar.

Bryant: 248 catches, 3,543 yards, 34 touchdowns.
Graham: 270 catches, 3,507 yards, 36 touchdowns.

Any discussions between the Cowboys and Bryant’s agent, Eugene Parker, have been kept under wraps for the most part. Most of the figures thrown around have been by the media. There are seven wide receivers with an average annual value of at least $10 million: Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson.

Marshall, Johnson, Fitzgerald, Wallace, Bowe and Jackson have at least $20 million in guaranteed money in their deals, as does Andre Johnson, who is threatening a holdout from the Houston Texans' training camp.

Graham’s contract puts him in line with receivers if not with the top-paid guys like Johnson ($16.2 million), Fitzgerald ($16.1 million). Harvin ($12.9 million) and Wallace ($12 million) who cashed in during free agency. Bowe averages $11.2 million. The Washington Redskins signed DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $24 million deal that included $16 million guaranteed in the offseason.

So where does Bryant fit in? Should he get Graham’s $10 million average or play out the season and possibly get tagged (that was $12.3 million in 2014)?

There is some middle ground in which both sides can compromise, but Graham's deal could help define just where that ground is, even if he is a tight end (wink, wink).
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Here’s the second part of our interview with Brandon Marshall as part of ESPN The Magazine’s Comeback Issue, which dropped on July 7 with a story about the Chicago Bears receiver.

Marshall spent time with us at his home in Chicago discussing a variety of topics, with most focused on some of the things he’s doing to promote mental health awareness. Our entire interview didn’t make it into the magazine story or the video clip above. So I decided to pull it together in its entirety:

Michael C. Wright: You’ve called the trade from Miami to Chicago a “career-saving trade,” a “life-saving trade.” Did you really feel your life was in jeopardy?

Brandon Marshall: No, I think a lot of people took that out of context. What I meant by that was when you look at the career side, it’s like, to be honest, I think I played with five or six different quarterbacks. You see how my production dropped and people were looking at me like, "He used to be a top-five receiver. It’s him. He’s dropping all these balls. He’s the issue. He’s the problem." Those people in Miami, they wanted my head for a year or two. But then I come to Chicago and you see me continue to produce at a high level. I had Jay Cutler. I was in a system I was familiar with. So it was career-saving. Now, the life-saving thing we’re talking about, I don’t know if the cameras can see it [Marshall looks around], but look at this beautiful city. You know what I mean? I say that it wasn’t a life-or-death thing. But a lot of us go through life doing things that we don’t love. We’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and we die freaking chasing money or chasing something to pay bills or we’re not happy. But for me, every single day, I walk outside my door and I smell the city air. I look at these tall buildings. I see people wearing Bulls hats, Blackhawks hats, Bears shirts. It’s fulfilling. It’s stimulating. The love and joy that we receive on a daily basis, it sometimes is too much. So that’s what I mean when I say life-saving. It’s like a dream. It’s the perfect situation, not only doing what I love, but doing it in a place where I can say I love, that’s now home for me. I don’t think you could buy that.

[+] EnlargeDavone Bess
AP Photo/David RichardDavone Bess, who was arrested in January, is "one of those guys that's walking with me," says former teammate Brandon Marshall.
You’ve taken on somewhat of a role as a mentor. What are you doing with your former teammate Davone Bess?

Marshall: I wouldn’t say that’s a mentorship, that’s more of, I think in every man’s life they need ... the perfect illustration is you have yourself here, you have a mentor above you. Then you have men you can walk with, and then there’s a mentee. So Davone Bess is one of those guys that’s walking with me, a guy that when I fall, he can pick me up and vice versa. It’s an interesting story because when we were playing together in Miami, we used to sit on the plane and talk about the same stuff. Our situations aren’t unique. Every guy deals with it at this level. We would compare text messages from family and friends asking us for money, or cussing us out because we said no, or threats, legal issues. And what you saw is, you saw a break in me early, and then a couple of years later, you see a break in Davone Bess’ health and stability. So it’s like it was always there, but it presented itself at different times. So good thing that I’ve been through it, someone that he can trust and believes in, and now I can say, "Bro, this is what I did and it worked for me."

You said that 2013 was the first year in your career that you were not selfish. Can you explain what you meant?

Marshall: I’m a believer in Christ. That’s my Lord and savior, and when you read the Bible, one of the biggest things that jumps out to me is his ability to serve others. So I always tell guys, if you want to be Muslim, be Muslim. You know, I have my beliefs. I’m not forcing that on you. But if you say you’re a Christian, then it’s either you’re all-in or you’re all-out. One of the teachings is being a servant, and you can’t be a selfish servant. I don’t think those two relate. It’s a contradiction. Last year I grew spiritually, and that was the first time I was able to step outside myself on this spiritual journey and be able to say, "You know what, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I’m gonna serve Alshon Jeffery. I’m gonna serve Martellus Bennett." Because I know there’s something bigger. I’m a part of something greater. I can’t wait to see what it is. But I know if I just continue to pour into those young men’s lives, we will be great together.

How confident are you that you can continue on this track? As we’ve discussed before, you’ve got a past. Can you honestly say that none of the things that have haunted your past will creep back into your life?

Marshall: That’s interesting because I never really read my Twitter mentions, because one day it’s gonna go from a ton of mentions and a ton of retweets to nothing when I’m not relevant anymore, when I’m not catching any more touchdowns. I’m preparing for that. I don’t really read too many stories. I will look at stats, but I won’t read stories. I did read your story the other day where you said, "Let’s see if he can keep it up," or something along those lines.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrandon Marshall is confident his problems are behind him.
I didn’t write that. I wrote that you needed to keep it up.

Marshall: I found that interesting. I found that interesting that there is a thought about me reverting back. But I always tell people that’s just part of the journey, especially for a young man given so much freedom, so much fame, so much fortune. That’s part of the journey, to make mistakes. But the problem is, you make your mistakes in the public’s eye. People look at me like, "Is this an act?" I know you believe in me, but some people will say, "Is it an act?" Or "It’s only going to last for so long." But I’m actually growing, every single day. This is the new me. This is who I am. So there isn’t any reverting back. But I do make mistakes. I’m pretty much still in the same exact situation. I just look at life differently and my approach is different. There’s some things out there I still need to work on.

Last thing. Can you finish this sentence for me? I would describe my comeback as...

Marshall: Inspirational.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC North

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
10:00
AM ET
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The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.

Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?

Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?

Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?

And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?

These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.

First Down

Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.



Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That is only happening if the other two quarterbacks end up as backups. First off, Bridgewater doesn't have to put up big numbers because he has a beast in the backfield in Adrian Peterson. So all he needs to do is hand off to Peterson and make sure not to turn it over on passing downs; be a game-manager. Perhaps Bridgewater is more of a gamer than workout performer, which is what all the scouts I have talked to would say. But I'm just not sold on Bridgewater based on what I saw from his pro day workout. That means he will probably wind up being Rookie of the Year.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.

Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.


Second Down

The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.



Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.


Third Down

Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.

Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.

Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.


Fourth Down

The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.

Marc TrestmanAP Photo/Matt RourkeUpon becoming coach of the Bears, Marc Trestman worked toward ending hazing in the locker room.
Marc Trestman's ability to think organically no doubt raised him above some of the other candidates during general manager Phil Emery's search prior to last season for a new coach to lead the Chicago Bears.

Trestman now seems to be taking things a step further, based on this article written by Peter King of The Monday Morning Quarterback, and might be on track to show that a proper culture in the locker room could translate into victories on the football field.

According to King, Trestman and quarterback Jay Cutler hopped a flight to New York to meet with Dov Seidman, an author who writes and speaks about values-based leadership, to toss around ideas about how to foster a more ethical culture in the locker room. What's interesting is Trestman made the eradication of hazing one of his first directives after taking the job as head coach of the Bears, and some of the players believed that move last season fostered a better work environment.

Obviously, locker room culture became a hot issue around the league last season when the Miami Dolphins suspended Richie Incognito, stemming from allegations of harassment from offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, who left the team and checked himself into a hospital to treat emotional distress. According to King, Seidman addressed team officials at the NFL's annual meeting in March, and is currently in the midst of conducting one-hour meetings with all 32 teams this month to talk about culture change in locker rooms.

“I've been in places where there's been hazing, and I've been in places where there has not been hazing,” Trestman said last November. “I told the team the first night: ‘When you haze somebody, you take their ability to help you win. Everybody's here to help you win.' We're not talking about taking a helmet and walking off the field with a helmet. We're talking about other things. The words you use, the way you act, the things you say affect people from all different backgrounds and places. We've got to understand that the beauty of this game is it draws people from everywhere, from different realities and different perceptions. But that can all be neutralized through respect and using the proper language and proper words in the right place and the right time, in this building, on the field, and when we're out in the community because we represent the entire city.”

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
David Banks/Getty Images"You have to earn your stripes ... but as far as crossing that line -- disrespecting guys, demeaning guys -- that just doesn't happen here," Brandon Marshall said.
It's clear Trestman wants to further improve upon some of the cultural changes he made upon becoming the team's head coach, and bringing along Cutler, who has never been perceived from the outside as a leader in the locker room, could go a long way toward that.

Trestman told King: “I got a tremendous start in the way a locker room was run when I coached for five years in Canada. In our locker room, everyone should feel safe. For some of the guys in Chicago, it was kind of new to them. There'd be no hazing. Lovie Smith had a great group of players, a great group, and he did a great job with them. There were some subtle things I wanted to add. I wanted to keep growing.”

Trestman declined to get into specifics about his conversation, telling King he simply “wanted to find out what else we could do to keep growing.”

Receiver Brandon Marshall and guard Kyle Long, who was a rookie in 2013, have both said they've appreciated Trestman's approach.

“Here, it's different. We look at rookies differently,” Marshall said. “You have to earn your stripes, earn your place on the team, earn your place in the NFL. But as far as crossing that line -- disrespecting guys, demeaning guys -- that just doesn't happen here. Actually, Coach Trestman did a great job of really going out of his way to make everyone feel comfortable from day one. There were some things where we were like, ‘Man, this stuff goes on in every locker room. We would love to continue to do it.' But Coach just said, ‘Hey, we're going to nip that in the bud. I want guys to focus on football, and everyone just focus on their jobs and not Rookie Night or what guys might do to me the next day [in terms of hazing].'”

Long said that Trestman made it “very clear from the beginning” that there would be no hazing in the locker room.

“I feel that's very conducive to a healthy workplace,” Long said. “We really appreciate that about Coach, where nobody is put ahead of anybody else. But at the same time, for you to think that we don't understand that we are rookies, you'd be mistaken.”

Through a coaching career spanning nearly three decades -- ranging from stints at colleges, a head-coaching job in the Canadian Football League and several other stints around the NFL -- Trestman said he's “seen the incidents” of hazing, and in Chicago he wanted to “build on the concept of respect and the growth of respect.”

“We're not going to spend time having players worry about things that can't help us win and are going to be disrespectful,” Trestman said last November. “I can't speak for anyone in the National Football League on that. I'm not going to stand up here after seven weeks on the job and start speaking for the league. Our whole foundation's built on respect for everyone in the organization, respect for the players, respect for the game, honoring the game. We've talked about it a lot.”

Apparently, Trestman's way isn't the norm around the NFL, which is part of the reason the league enlisted Seidman as a consultant. Seidman is the CEO of the LRN Corporation, which works with businesses to stress principled performance. Seidman believes culture change in NFL locker rooms won't take place overnight.

Trestman seems to be way ahead of the curve in that area.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Second-year receiver Marquess Wilson laughs thinking back to his rookie season, when he caught just two passes for 13 yards.

[+] EnlargeMarquess Wilson
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarquess Wilson jumped at the opportunity to train this offseason with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Not because he wants more or feels he didn't do enough. It's just that Wilson understands he was blessed with an opportunity to contribute as a rookie, and such prospects will only grow as he enters Year 2 in the NFL with a legitimate shot to win a role as the club's No. 3 receiver.

"I'm glad I got the opportunity to catch a ball. Not many people can say they did that," Wilson said. "Not everybody can get on an NFL field."

Even more can't stick, which is part of the reason Wilson didn't hesitate to accept the invitation of receiver Brandon Marshall to spend a portion of the offseason training with him and fellow receiver Alshon Jeffery in South Florida. Marshall extended the same invitation after Jeffery's rookie season.

When Jeffery returned, he and Marshall quickly teamed to finish 2013 as one of the league's most dynamic duos at receiver. Jeffery and Marshall combined for 2,716 yards, which ranked No. 2 among NFL duos behind Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (2,718 yards). The combined production of Jeffery and Marshall in 2014 ranked as the most receiving yards in franchise season history by a duo.

"Brandon invited me and I figured if he took the time to ask me to come, I'd better get down there because he just wants to help me out with my career," Wilson said. "Seeing [Jeffery] went down with Brandon after his rookie season and came back last year and just blew up, just seeing if it worked for him, it could work for me. That gave me confidence going down there with B-Marsh and working with them two."

At the two sessions of organized team activities open to the media, Wilson worked with the starters when the Bears operated out of three-receiver sets. The coaching staff and general manager Phil Emery have indicated Wilson will receive the first opportunity to win the job as the slot receiver.

Now, Wilson just has to seize it, and he has leaned on Jeffery and Marshall for guidance on how to do it.

"It's great. Those two guys are the best in the business," Wilson said. "You've got those two on the outside and me coming in. It could open up a lot. We just feed off each other. If one person makes a play, we're gonna all want to make that play and [that] just [raises] us to another level on the field."

Given the increased expectations and potentially increased role for Wilson in 2014, the No. 1 goal for the receiver between now and the preseason is simply "to be a hard worker," he said.

Is there pressure for 2014?

"No," Wilson said. "If I know my role and if I know the plays, I shouldn't feel pressure. I can't play with pressure. I've got to play with confidence, and that's one mindset I've got to stand by."
Normally quiet, Alshon Jeffery apparently has gained a little more confidence and swagger from Brandon Marshall's mentorship, judging from the former’s comments recently to Sporting News.

Jeffery said he and Marshall in 2013 were the league’s two best receivers. As a duo, they were, combining for a monstrous 189 catches for 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns, but Jeffery also knows it’s time to put that accomplishment in the past.

Jeffery
Marshall
“I’m not the type of person that brags a lot about anything,” Jeffery said. “But I feel that last year, what we did, we were at the top of the list as the two best receivers. But that was last year. This year we have to set our goal and try our best to do the same thing we did last year, if not better.”

Jeffery gained a team-high 1,421 receiving yards on 89 receptions for seven touchdowns in his second season, which ranked as No. 6 in the NFL. He’s already put together the two biggest receiving games in franchise history (218 yards against New Orleans and 249 yards at Minnesota last season). Asked about a potential nickname, Jeffery came up with “The Show.”

“I feel like every time I try to catch the ball and make a play, I try to put on a show. So that’s what I would call myself,” Jeffery said.

Nobody’s arguing Jeffery’s ability to make such plays, but as the receiver mentioned before: 2013 is the past. He’s got to gain a level of consistency before he can legitimately put himself in Marshall’s class.

Marshall recently signed a three-year extension worth $30 million, and Jeffery could be in line for a similar payday. Jeffery has two years remaining on his rookie contract.

“Alshon has potential,” Marshall said. “We can’t crown him right now. You have to be consistent. You have to stay healthy. He has all the potential in the world if he can do that, if he can stay humble. That’s what got him here. So if he can do that, he’ll set himself up to secure his family and get him some stability. I think we have the guys in this locker room that can really help him with that.”

Jeffery told Sporting News that the game “slowed down for me” last season, and he doesn’t see 2014 as a daunting challenge despite the expectation that defenses will now consistently gear up to neutralize him.

“I feel with the hard work I put in, the results you’ll see will show for itself,” he said.

IRVING, Texas -- Dez Bryant is right. He does deserve to be paid by the Dallas Cowboys. He has earned it.

The question is how will he be paid?

He is dynamic with the ball in his hands. He deserves to be in the conversation with the best receivers in the NFL, such as Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson and whoever else you want to add to the list. That doesn't mean he is at the top of the group just yet, but he deserves to be in the conversation.

SportsNation

Should the Cowboys give Dez Bryant a long-term extension before the season starts?

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    29%

Discuss (Total votes: 23,361)

He is only 25. He has had more than 90 catches in each of the past two seasons. He has posted 1,382 and 1,233 yards the past two seasons, and he has caught 25 touchdown passes in that span. Those are elite numbers. And he went to his first Pro Bowl last season.

Bryant has improved each year on and off the field, and the Cowboys deserve praise for how they have helped guide him in certain manners. But Bryant deserves the most credit. He has developed close relationships with Jason Witten and Tony Romo. He has changed how he has operated.

He has become one of Jason Garrett’s guys. This year he will be asked to take more of a leadership role in the wide receivers’ meeting room with Miles Austin gone. He likes the responsibility and is not afraid of being “the guy.”

What will make or break a long-term deal for Bryant will be the structure of the contract. The Cowboys will want some insurance.

Most of the bigger deals for receivers revolve around large signing bonuses and lower base salaries in the first few years to help with the salary cap. But do the Cowboys follow that path? They want to keep Bryant hungry and happy. They have seen their past two big-time contracts for wide receivers (Roy Williams and Miles Austin) go up in smoke.

If something were to go awry with Bryant, the Cowboys don’t want to be in a position where they are hamstrung by the salary cap. With higher base salaries, the thinking is Bryant will have to remain motivated to make sure he cashes in every year. It also gives the team an out without killing them against the cap.

Believe it or not, the Cowboys can look at Terrell Owens’ deal in 2006 as a blueprint.

They structured Owens’ first contract with the Cowboys that way. In 2006, Owens received a $5 million signing bonus and $5 million salary in a three-year, $25 million deal. His base salaries in Years 2 and 3 were $7 million and $8 million. Owens had been upset at the structure of his deal when he signed with Philadelphia, which ultimately led him to the Cowboys after a hellacious year with the Eagles.

The Cowboys would want to avoid something similar with Bryant. His agent, Eugene Parker, has a good working relationship with the team, so there could be some common ground to find where Bryant is happy and the team is happy.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brandon Marshall called the trade that brought him to the Chicago Bears from the Miami Dolphins in 2012 "life-saving and career-saving," but those words will ring hollow if the receiver doesn't remain on the path he's paved.

That's not to say Marshall can't or won't stay on the straight and narrow, because evidence over the past couple of years indicates a man changed by family, faith and football. The key for him now is to continue to lean on those attributes to accomplish his mission to make football merely a platform to reach larger, more important goals.

"A couple of months ago I said to my wife, 'We're going to sign a contract this offseason, and our motto is: Football is our platform, not our purpose.' And we want to do something special for the community that we feel we're supposed to be in," Marshall explained when asked why he signed his new contract on ABC's "The View."

It would likely be just as impressive to the Chicago community if Marshall stays on this newfound course he's established in his work as an advocate for mental health awareness. What makes Marshall's story appealing is his willingness to show vulnerability and expose his own flaws just to let everyone else know he's human. His story lets people know he's not just the 6-foot-5, 230-pound superhuman receiver who puts up 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the NFL every year seemingly with ease.

In explaining why the environment in Chicago is a better match for him than Miami, Marshall told a story about a recent outburst he had on the field.

"Last year, I was having problems a little bit in practice, and I just threw my helmet and my gloves down and I started pacing up and down the sidelines," Marshall said. "Some people can look at me and judge me and jump down my throat. But everyone gave me my space, and in a couple of plays I was back out there. So that's why [this is] a safe environment for me because they understand I love this game. They know my approach. I don't mean anything, any harm."

It's not that teammates and coaches excused yet another Marshall tantrum during this incident. But they understand Marshall's passion for the game and knew that, ultimately, he'd come to his senses and realize he'd lost his cool.

In November 2011, when the Dolphins were trudging through a winless start after seven games, Marshall got in a fight with former teammate Vontae Davis. He reportedly threw a football in the cornerback's face after criticizing Davis for acting unprofessionally.

But shortly after Marshall's trade to Miami, sources explaining that situation said that Marshall took Davis under his wing shortly after the two met, and the receiver was trying to help the cornerback become a better professional. Did Marshall handle that incident the right way? Probably not, but he has experienced growth in Chicago, and it needs to continue.

"So yeah, it feels like a retirement thing right now," Marshall said Thursday as he wiped away tears with an orange handkerchief. "But it means a lot to me. I just wanted to thank everybody because it's not really about me, it's about the people around me. Anybody that's in a successful position or who has been successful, it's about the team. It's about having the right people on the bus, and the right people in the right seats, and I think I figured it out and I'm thankful for them."
Aaron KromerAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhOffensive coordinator Aaron Kromer works with QB Adam Kennedy during the Bears' rookie camp.
Red-faced, his hair a sticky, wet mess, quarterback David Fales strolled off the field fresh off his first experience with a Marc Trestman football practice during a recent three-day rookie minicamp, describing it as “chaos, bring the rage, intense.”

In 2014, Year 2 of operating Trestman’s offense after a breakout 2013 campaign, that’s exactly what the Chicago Bears hope to deliver to opposing defenses. The plan to do that involves a mixture of comfort in Year 2 of the scheme and a focus in the playbook on what the players did well in 2013, while also finding ways to expand the system based on the latter.

So far, the process looks promising, according to coaches and players.

“I don’t want to say there’s a comfort level, but there’s not a complacent level with how we’re handling things,” Trestman said. “Our guys have worked extremely hard. They have a tremendous grasp of the offense. With that in mind, we started with 'this is a football,' and we worked our way into each and every phase in a normal progression. But there certainly is a sense of confidence, a sense that we’ve got a chance to be a very good offense; particularly because those are guys that have been together. But they’re not taking anything for granted.”

That becomes quite apparent if you’ve tracked any of the moves made this offseason by the club’s veteran offensive players on social media. There you’ll find group selfies such as the one left tackle Jermon Bushrod posted in March that included right tackle Jordan Mills, receivers Brandon Marshall and Marquess Wilson, tight end Fendi Onobun, center Roberto Garza, guard Kyle Long and quarterback Jay Cutler. So it’s apparent they’re spending copious amounts of time together training, running through repetitions on offense, and building chemistry through off-the-field fellowship, as a good portion of the club’s offensive players traveled to Florida to train at FitSpeed Athletic Performance, which is co-owned by Marshall.

In their first season operating Trestman’s scheme, the offense set multiple single-season franchise records. The unit racked up a franchise-best 6,109 net yards and the passing offense set single-season marks in net passing yards (4,281), completion percentage (64.4), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (96.9). The Bears also set franchise records with 344 first downs and scored the second-most points (445) in franchise history.

Yet nobody -- especially the players -- is basking in the accomplishments from last year because let’s not forget the Bears finished out of the playoffs with an 8-8 record last season. Cutler has won only one playoff game in eight NFL seasons, and he recently turned 31. Marshall, meanwhile, despite making the Pro Bowl five times in eight seasons, still hasn't played in a postseason contest.

So despite the breakout performance on offense last season, there's still a feverish sense of urgency for the group in 2014 to reach its full potential. Ask any of the skill-position players about 2013, and there's a good chance you get the standard we-left-a-lot-on-the–field line.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler and Brandon Marshall
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhQB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall will draw from their leadership skills and two seasons playing together to help elevate the Bears' offense in 2014.
“You know, it was a long journey last year from this first day when we started, just to get the cadence,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “It was like rookie camp with veterans, and it’s always hard when you have a new staff because you’re working so hard on just the plays, how we call things, what we should be looking at, the technique we want different from other teams, that you don’t get the nuance of the play. You have to get yourself past the whole, ‘This is who I block, this is what route I run, this is who I throw it to.’

"So it’s been refreshing being with Jay Cutler, the offensive line and the running backs. And when you install a play from last year, they look at you like, ‘I remember.’ I’m making a big point, and we as a staff are making a big point of, ‘listen closely to what we’re coaching because you probably missed a couple of things last year.’ So we’re doing everything we can to have them pay attention to the little things.

“What are the little things? The little things are things they didn’t get before.”

When the Bears hired Trestman in January 2013, the staff didn’t even know what type of offense it would run. The coaches had an idea of how the players might fit, but not how they’d actually operate within the system the staff was installing.

That’s why as the year progressed last season “we became more efficient as an offense,” Kromer said.

The club gradually narrowed the playbook to feature what the team did well and what the players -- especially Cutler -- liked to do most. That narrowing continues this offseason. But at the same time, the team wants to broaden the system, as Kromer explained, “from that spectrum” of what the players already do well.

“Any group that can play together for a few years is good,” Marshall told the “Carmen & Jurko” show on ESPN 1000 on Tuesday. “It’s going to be awesome to see us grow because of the experience and the time we’re able to put in during the offseason. Now we bring in Coach Trestman going in his second year, and he’s really putting science behind all of his madness. It’s bringing everybody together, and it’s really cool to see what’s going on in our locker room. I’ve never been with a bunch of selfless guys like this. Everyone is just all-in, whether it’s the running game, the passing game. Everyone believes [and is] pulling for each other. It’s cool, man. It’s awesome to be part of this crew.”

Trestman called the process of working with Kromer, the staff and Cutler this offseason to tweak the playbook for 2014 “excellent.”

“We’ve narrowed some of the things we did last year, and we’ve expanded to some of the things we want to take a look at,” Trestman said. “We still have a pretty long list of plays in our playbook, so to speak, to keep it simple. It’s just the daily process of working through the plays, getting better, evaluating what we did last year, working to improve, and then working into the new football that we’ve put in.”

Will it all work this season? That’s the big unknown. But the body of work the offense put on the field in 2013 provided plenty of reasons to be optimistic headed into the season. In addition to the new coaching staff bringing in an unfamiliar scheme, the Bears put together a brand new offensive line as Garza was the only returning starter from 2012. It’s also easy to forget Marshall spent all of last offseason rehabbing from arthroscopic hip surgery, and was hobbled throughout the early part of the season.

Now, everyone’s healthy, and familiar with the system. Most importantly, they're hungry.

“Team goals, I would say just enjoy the journey,” Marshall said. “But of course we definitely want to be in Arizona [for the Super Bowl]. That’s going to be really tough. We have to put it together. On paper, we look great, but we have to go out there and do it. We have the guys that can upstairs, [and] downstairs. So we’ll see how it goes.”
The Chicago Bears made significant offseason repairs to the defense after that group finished 2013 dead last against the run. It hasn't gone unnoticed by wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

Marshall
The team allocated financial resources in free agency to sign defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, plus re-signed cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff.

General manager Phil Emery then used his first three picks in the 2014 NFL draft on defense: cornerback Kyle Fuller, defensive tackle Ego Ferguson and defensive tackle Will Sutton.

Marshall's $30 million extension came four months after the Bears agreed to a lucrative new deal with quarterback Jay Cutler.

"Phil Emery and the guys upstairs have done an amazing job, not just this year, but also last year," Marshall said Tuesday on "The Carmen & Jurko Show" on ESPN Chicago 1000. "What they've done on the offensive side and how they revamped the offensive line in one draft and one free agency [is impressive]. Now they are doing the same on the defensive side.

"Change isn't unique in the NFL. We've had a lot of change here in the last few years, and I think guys in the whole building adjusted well to it. It says a lot about the whole culture the McCaskeys and Coach [Lovie] Smith had created here. The guys like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been amazing. We're just trying to carry the torch."

Marshall and a large number of his offensive teammates spent a portion of the offseason training together in South Florida, where the wide receiver has a home.

"That's the way to win in modern sports; it's not really what you do on the field or during the season, it's what you do off the field away from the sport," Marshall said. "We are not talking about the training in the offseason; we are talking about getting together and building that chemistry and authentic relationships.

"It's going to be awesome to see us grow because of the experience and the time we've been able to put in throughout the offseason."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Don't think the Green Bay Packers and the agents for receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson didn't notice the contract extension that Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall signed on Monday -- even if none of the parties involved had on ABC's "The View."

Nelson
Cobb
Marshall's deal could impact negotiations between the Packers and their top-two receivers, both of whom are entering the final year of their contracts.

Marshall's three-year, $30 million contract extension also came with him entering the final year of his contract. His last deal averaged $11.194 million per season, making him the NFL's sixth-highest-paid receiver, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data.

While Marshall isn't an exact comparison for either Cobb or Nelson -- at age 30 he's closer in age to Nelson (28) than Cobb (23), but he has five Pro Bowls and one All-Pro selection compared to none for either Nelson or Cobb -- every deal signed by a marquee receiver will help shape the market for the Packers' duo.

Nelson's last contract averaged $4.2 million per season, an average per year that currently ranks 32nd among NFL receivers. If nothing else, Nelson's camp certainly has a strong case that he's better than the 32nd-best receiver in the NFL, especially coming off a season in which he ranked 13th among receivers in receptions (85) and 10th in yards (1,314).

Cobb is still playing under his original rookie contract -- a four-year, $3.233 million deal that ranks 79th on the list of receivers in terms of average per year. Again, there certainly are not 78 receivers better than Cobb in the NFL, but the injury that kept him out of 10 games last season could impact the negotiations. Also, the fact Cobb plays primarily in the slot could limit his value. The highest-paid slot receiver is Victor Cruz ($8.6 million per season) of the New York Giants.

As of Monday, there were eight receivers with contracts that average at least $10 million per season led by Detroit's Calvin Johnson ($16.207 million per season) and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald ($16.142 million).

Before the Packers began signing their latest round of rookie contracts last week, they had $15,078,037 in salary-cap space available for this season.
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Brandon Marshall made it clear in March that "one way or another, they’re going to get the deal done,” and the Chicago Bears made good on the receiver’s optimism Monday by signing him to a three-year extension that brings his total compensation up to $40 million over the next four years with $23 million guaranteed.

No doubt about it, Chicago made the smart play by signing Marshall, who hasn't shown any level of drop-off in terms of production on the field, yet appears to have grown by leaps and bounds off it.

On the field, Marshall comes off a 2013 season in which he gained more than 1,000 yards receiving for the seventh consecutive year while producing his fifth 100-catch campaign. Despite coming off arthroscopic hip surgery going into the 2013 season, Marshall still outmuscled the opposition for 1,295 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns.

Marshall is the only player in the NFL to put together 1,000-yard receiving seasons in each of the past seven years, and the only player in the league with 80 receptions in each of the past seven years. Marshall is tied for the NFL record with five 100-catch seasons (2007-09 and 2012-13), and is the first player in NFL history with 100-catch seasons with two teams (Denver and Chicago).

What’s scary for defenses headed into 2014 is Marshall isn’t in rehabilitation mode this offseason. He’s in Florida training to improve strength, speed and stamina. What’s more, he's hosting several teammates for these brutal grind sessions. That's where the off-the-field component of this extension could prove most beneficial for the Bears.

He's emotional. And he has shown bouts of immaturity in the past.

But now, Marshall knows how to control his emotions for the good of the entire team, and has taken on a role as mentor to the younger players such as receivers Alshon Jeffery and Marquess Wilson. In the past, Marshall wanted Pro Bowls. Now, he wants a Super Bowl.

In eight seasons in the NFL, Marshall still hasn’t played in a postseason contest. He's hungry to do that now probably more than ever, and he’s taking teammates along for the ride, teaching many of the younger players on offense how to train, how to eat, and how to properly maintain their bodies through proper recovery techniques to help them get through the wear and tear of a 16-game season.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Brandon Marshall
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Bears have extended their top wide receiver in Brandon Marshall, a veteran who has caught 23 touchdowns for Chicago the past two seasons.
When the Bears hit the field for organized team activities May 27, you can expect to see an enhanced level of crispness in the passing game. No. 1, the Bears will be operating in coach Marc Trestman’s system for the second consecutive year. If you go back to this point last year, the Bears didn’t even know exactly what they’d be doing on offense and the majority of this time was spent installing the scheme.

No. 2, the passing game should be enhanced because of all the time spent among the skill-position players in Florida with Marshall. Even quarterback Jay Cutler attended, along with many of the offensive linemen. In addition to all the on-field work and training in the gym, Marshall and the rest of the players spent copious amounts of time together just hanging out, judging from all the pictures he and teammates posted on Twitter.

That off-field interaction is paramount to building team chemistry, and part of the reason the Marshall extension goes beyond what he provides on the field.

It’s natural to wonder how the team will handle the impending new deal for Jeffery, who in 2015 enters the final year of his rookie contract. But remember, the Bears found a way to get Cutler his money, and found a way to bring on Jared Allen, in the process of totally revamping the defensive line. The club will make the necessary moves to keep Jeffery in the fold, too.

Let's not forget Chicago has turned over the roster dramatically since Trestman came on board Jan. 16, 2013. The offense seems to have finally turned things around to become one of the league’s better units.

But that wouldn’t be possible without the rock of the offense, which is precisely what Marshall is.

Chicago Bears draft wrap-up

May, 10, 2014
May 10
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NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A wrap-up of the Chicago Bears’ draft. Click here for a full list of Bears' draftees.

Bears general manager Phil Emery likes to say a team can never expect to fill all of its needs via the draft. Well, eight draft choices later, the Bears actually came close.

Best move: Taking defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton with consecutive picks on Day 2. We don’t know if Ferguson or Sutton will pan out, but the Bears had to keep strengthening the defensive line after last season. Ferguson and Sutton join new faces Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Austen Lane, Trevor Scott and Israel Idonije, who is back for his second tour of duty. The Bears also re-signed tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins to help fortify the trenches on defense.

This reminds me of how Emery & Co. rebuilt the offensive line last offseason.

Riskiest move: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey’s (fourth round) on-field production speaks for itself: 4,239 yards, 48 rushing touchdowns and 77 receptions for 679 yards in three years for the Wildcats.

However, there are questions about Carey that extended beyond the football field. The 5-9, 207-pound tailback reportedly had multiple run-ins with the authorities, including a charge of assaulting his pregnant ex-girlfriend that was later dismissed.

Carey depicted himself as a high-character individual when he spoke to Chicago media members following his selection by the Bears at No. 117.

“As you guys are going to get to know me over the years; I’m an outgoing [person] who loves kids and is light-hearted,” Carey said. “I would never do anything to harm people. I’m a loveful cat.”

Emery is not afraid to draft or acquire players with questionable character. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall has rewarded Emery’s faith in him by posting consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. On the flip side, 2012 fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez lasted only one season before being cut after multiple run-ins with the law last offseason.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Casey
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsArizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, a fourth-round pick by the Bears, has some question marks in terms of off-the-field incidents.
Most surprising move: Emery told reporters before the draft that he rejected the notion of drafting a developmental quarterback in the later rounds with the intent of grooming him to be a future starter.

The Bears selected San Jose State quarterback David Fales in the sixth round (183).

Go figure.

File it away: Time will tell if the Bears regret passing on a safety in the first round.

The organization continued its longstanding tradition of waiting until the later rounds to address the position when they moved back into the fourth round and traded away a pair of fifth-round selections to grab Minnesota’s Brock Vereen at 131. Vereen does have an excellent NFL pedigree. His brother, Shane, a standout running back, was selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft by the New England Patriots. Their father, Henry, was drafted by the Bucs in 1979.

Vereen is a versatile player who lined up at all four defensive back spots over the course of his career with the Golden Gophers. He started 36 games and registered 200 tackles, four interceptions, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and one blocked kick.

“Brock is one of the smartest and most versatile players I have ever had the privilege of coaching and is an outstanding young man,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “He is the ultimate team player and will do whatever is needed to help the Bears win. I know he is going to make Chicago a better team and will also be a great teammate in the locker room.”

But you can argue the Bears are in this mess at safety because the organization doesn't put a high enough value on the position.
While playing in Chicago last year, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown had a lot of success throwing to a pair of big receivers – Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.

Evans
That’s why it’s no coincidence the Buccaneers drafted 6-foot-4 Mike Evans in the first round Thursday night. Evans instantly will enter the starting lineup opposite 6-5 Vincent Jackson. That will give the Bucs one of the biggest receiver tandems in the NFL. Coach Lovie Smith even jokingly referred to Evans and Jackson as the “twin towers.’’

“I think if you look at the league last year – and I of course had a lot of time to watch the league last year – I saw what two big receivers can do,’’ Smith said. “It’s a tough matchup if you just look at the average height of most cornerbacks in this league. You might have a 6-foot corner, but you normally don’t have two big guys that can match up like that.’’

Critics will say the Bucs still need a speed receiver and there’s some truth to that. But the Bucs now have two starting-caliber receivers – something they didn’t have before the draft. The Bucs still have time to find a speed receiver to put in the slot.

“We want to score points in any way we can,’’ Smith said. “This is a combination that looked pretty attractive to us. Of course, having a player like Josh McCown here – Josh, of course, has been in that situation and to say Josh has been in our ear quite a bit is an understatement. Seeing that [combination in Chicago] work like that was attractive to us, but as much as anything, we saw a playmaker on the offensive side of the ball that we had a chance to get that we really felt like could help us.”
Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson Getty ImagesGreen Bay Packers receivers Randall Cobb (18) and Jordy Nelson are both in line for raises as they enter the final season of their current contracts.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- At some point in the next 11 months -- likely sooner rather than later -- the Green Bay Packers will extend the contracts of receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.

Between now and when they scribble their names on their new deals there will be much discussion about each player's value.

Myriad factors come in to play during contract negotiations, but the most important ones are production, injury history (which is usually tied to production) and age (which can be tied to injury history).

Another factor you might hear thrown around when it comes to Cobb and Nelson is the unscientific term "No. 1 receiver" -- as in should either one or both be paid like one?

In an ESPN Insider piece, former NFL scout Matt Williamson helped define exactly what that term means .

He came up with four characteristics:

  • They need to have the ability to separate from man coverage, understand how to find the soft spots in zones and have very strong athletic traits.
  • They need to be strong, fast and play big, which often -- but not always -- can eliminate shorter wide receivers from this equation.
  • They must be productive, even when opposing defenses are scheming to take them out of the equation; No. 1 receivers can be uncoverable and never come off the field.
  • They must display the above traits with consistency.

What was perhaps most interesting about Williamson's list is that he came up with only 14 players in the NFL who fit his criteria.

"The term 'No. 1 receiver' is often thrown around loosely, but to me, there certainly are not 32 No. 1 receivers in the league just because every team has a favorite target," Williamson wrote.

Also, Williamson had two tight ends -- New England's Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham -- among his 14.

Among his 12 receivers, only four were among the NFL's top-10 highest-paid receivers (see the accompanying chart). They were: Detroit's Calvin Johnson (No. 1), Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (No. 2), Chicago's Brandon Marshall (No. 6) and Houston's Andre Johnson (No. 8).

However, six of the 12 are still playing under their rookie contracts and will be in line for significant raises on their next deal.

Back to the cases for whether Cobb and Nelson belong in that same category as they enter the final season of their current contracts.

According to Williamson, one of them should be considered a No. 1 receiver and the other is close. Also, it's possible for one team to have two No. 1 receivers, Williamson wrote, as is the case with the Bears (Marshall and Alshon Jeffery).

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson cracked the list at No. 13 under the heading "Just ask their quarterbacks if they are No. 1 receivers." Williamson also put San Francisco's Michael Crabtree in that same category.

"With great size for the position, he is often mistaken for a possession weapon, however only three receivers converted more receptions of 20 or more yards last year, Williamson wrote of Nelson. "His deep speed and big-play ability is vastly underrated, but Nelson also is Aaron Rodgers' go-to target when Rodgers needs a first down and has always proven to be reliable.

"Nelson had his best season in 2013, accumulating over 1,300 receiving yards, and bear in mind that he was playing without Rodgers for much of that time. He isn't a product of the system or his surroundings and would be great in any environment."

Nelson's next contract will be his third. Midway through the 2011 season, he signed a three-year extension that averaged $4.2 million per season. That average ranks 32nd among all NFL receivers in 2014.

Williamson ranked Cobb among 11 players who he termed as "close but not quite" No. 1 receivers.

Cobb, who like Nelson was a second-round pick, is entering the final season of his rookie contract. Two factors likely kept Cobb out of Williamson’s top 14: his size (5-10, 192) and that he missed 10 games last season because of a fractured tibia.

But in 2012, Cobb caught 80 passes despite missing one game, and there is room for growth. He is entering his fourth season but won't turn 24 years old until late in training camp this summer, making him more than 5 years younger than Nelson, who turns 29 in May.

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